NPT Executive of the Year 2001

December 1, 2001       Craig Causer      

It’s a common belief that the classified ads do not contain one’s calling in life. For Susan Sarfati, the daily newspaper listings may not have provided so much of an epiphany as a chance to work in the nation’s capital. Sometimes a call is presumed local and ends up being long distance.

“It was the late ’70s and I was a special ed teacher and was looking for other opportunities. I was specifically looking for a lifestyle change because I was teaching during the day and then going home to children. My whole life was revolving around children. I opened up the newspaper and saw a job ad for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce,” explained Sarfati, president of the Greater Washington Society of Association Executives (GWSAE).

That start was the birth of 30 years of education and association savvy used most recently to christen The Center for Association Leadership in Washington, D.C., for which she is also president and CEO. The center was created as a stand-alone 501(c)(3) organization, yet still maintains links with its founding parent GWSAE. With over 100 programs ready for implementation it is poised to become the hub for the more than 3,500 associations in the area as well as those across the country who wish to utilize the organization’s Web-based content.

For her forward thinking, creative and educational approach toward associations, Susan Sarfati is The NonProfit Times 2001 Executive of the Year. Her leadership has positioned a local and regional organization into a national leadership role that may allow the GWSAE to eclipse larger national umbrella organizations.

The annual winner is selected by the editors of The NonProfit Times and is bestowed upon the executive who has had a leading and lasting impact on the sector during the past year. Sarfati’s impact is significant in that association executives have a permanent place to congregate to learn effective strategies from an eclectic array of speakers and resources.

Housed at the Marriott Learning Complex within the Ronald Reagan Building & International Trade Center in the heart of Washington, D.C., The Center for Association Leadership is a hi-tech executive office and library with a Friends Central Perk coffee house feel. Laptop computers line the center featuring various displays regarding associations, while visitors recline, fresh brewed coffee from the nearby kitchen in hand, in cushy chairs complete with swiveling armrest desktops. A meeting room and technology area round out the facility.

The collegiate atmosphere lends to a relaxed learning environment but it’s the educators who generally make or break any classroom. Sarfati is making sure that all of the bases are covered both in and out of the association field.

“Some of the visionaries we select for the center will be outside our arena,” Sarfati said. “We also have a series called The Thought Leaders where we invite people outside the arena to come and talk to our association people as well as people from government and universities so that ideas can be shared across the board. And we intend to keep that up.”

The Thought Leaders continues the Sarfati staple of providing education through diversity. In 1994, she cooked up what has become one of GWSAE’s most buzzed-about programs, The Distinguished Speakers Series. The program is held at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and is geared toward providing attendees with an understanding of what makes an effective leader. Now in its eighth year, the series has included speakers ranging from world leaders George H.W. Bush and Margaret Thatcher; high-profile celebrities Bill Cosby and Oprah Winfrey; revolutionary thinker Stephen Hawking; and award-winning poet Maya Angelou.

The significance of the speakers and their unique experiences were not lost on Sarfati. She credits a number of distinguished speakers with leaving her with a lasting impression.

“Margaret Thatcher is one speaker who sticks in my mind. She spoke about her viewpoint on consensus building. I remember her saying this: ‘Consensus is the opposite of leadership.’ In associations, they’re governed by consensus so it was a good opportunity for discussion.”

In terms of both a moving and intellectual experience, she recalled Stephen Hawking, who talked through the use of a computer. Hawking participated in an expanded speaker series to include young people in the area. High school and college students with disabilities were invited to listen to a talk that did not include scientific theories but rather overcoming adversity.

The success of the program was far from assured during the first year, as many association leaders questioned the significance of the speakers. “People were not understanding the relevance and the connection between association executives,” admitted Barbara Byrd Keenan, president of the Community Associations Institute in Alexandria, Va., and chairperson at GWSAE. Keenan and Sarfati go back to 1979 when they both worked with the American Society of Association Executives’ (ASAE) Education Council. “What all of that learning does is become part of our own knowledge core and being able to make decisions about our organizations and their strategic direction. Clearly Susan had her hand on the pulse.”

Keenan attributed a great deal of Sarfati’s success to foresight, specifically an “uncanny ability” to perceive a need for learning and knowledge within the association community and the development of those needs before everybody realizes it’s an urgency.

“People-learner” is how Sarfati describes herself. “I prefer to encourage other people to learn from one another rather than going out and trying to reinvent the wheel. There’s something to the phrase ‘learning through experience’ and there are many people out there who can share their valuable experiences,” she said.

When it comes to dealing with people Sarfati is not concerned with hierarchy, be it real or perceived. During a tour of the center she made it a point to explain the facility’s unique amoeba-like conference table. It was designed so that there was no head of the table or status seats, thereby starting off every meeting with people thinking discussion rather than differences.

Ed Able, president and chief executive officer of the American Association of Museums in Washington, D.C., has known Sarfati for 20 years and labels her a “true leading-edge thinker.”

“She commands so much respect in both the association community and the supplier community that she can pretty much always get the support that she needs to pursue her creative endeavors,” Able said. “People, through experience, have learned that they can trust her. What she says she can do she will do and the center is evidence of that.”

The center was actually borne out of necessity, Sarfati openly admits. GWSAE was having difficulties securing meeting rooms at hotels due to the fact that most current program attendees are local and the organization could not guarantee the set number of room rentals that hotels covet when selling conference space. Rather than continuing to deal with 11th-hour scrambles for rooms, Sarfati tossed around ideas at a board meeting and it was decided that if GWSAE built a center, members would use it.

It started with the space issue and the expansion of the educational program, Sarfati said. GWSAE sought a total experience, one that would allow people to linger, use the library and invite other association people to join them for meetings. It became a whole different purpose aside from a classroom, she added.

For Sarfati, the process has been rewarding, with the most exciting moment coming when the first large contribution was secured. Ironically enough the $1.2 million gift that got the center’s lifeblood pumping was given by a man firmly established as one of the country’s hotel kings.

“To have somebody of Mr. Marriott’s stature believe enough in what we were doing to give us that gift was totally amazing,” Sarfati said. “Our organization had never fundraised before, so to get a lead gift like that was incredible. The most rewarding thing after that was that association professionals themselves actually made contributions out of their own pockets and private resources.”

While the contribution totals were impressive, her colleagues know that Sarfati is an educator at heart. Keenan believes her to be “the premiere developer of strategic association educational programs in the country.” Able concurs and adds that she’s a risk-taker who “doesn’t mind pushing the envelope and assuming the consequences.” Both Keenan and Able date these qualities back to her days at ASAE.

“The core theme through her career is education — knowledge and learning is really her strength and that is where her focus is,” Keenan reiterated. “That’s the type of leadership that she brought to ASAE as their vice president. She was the staff person assigned to ASAE’s Fellows Program, where a lot of innovative programming came out. Ed (Able) and I were actually in the very first class so we experienced that with her and some of the ideas that she had.”

Sarfati was an ASAE Fellow in 1994, seven years after earning the Certified Association Executive designation.

It has been quite the journey for the special education teacher who, along with her husband Joel Sarfati, reared two sons and a daughter. For Sarfati, the story does not begin with a meager Help Wanted ad and end with the center as the crown jewel of a glittering career. She is continuing to look ahead.

“This is the beginning, the first days of the education journey. It’s not the peak at all, I don’t think we’ll ever reach a peak. It’s like the quote from Mr. Marriott inscribed here at the center and I really do believe it, ‘Success is never final.’ Just as society changes and associations change and people’s needs change, so will we.”

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